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My initial impression of the village of Sirakoro, Mali, was an explosion of color. The women were dressed in bold prints, often with twirled head scarves, and yet their dazzling outfits contrasted sharply with the mud brown backdrop of their village. On the surface level, to my untrained eye, the poverty in Mali was different from the stark, in-your-face urban poverty that I grew up around in Mumbai, India. Here the struggles seemed subtle to a visitor, but were equally if not harsher. No running water or electricity, scarcity of food, and lack of adequate schools—to name a few.
I traveled to Mali recently to attend a conference on Saving for Change, Oxfam’s innovative microfinance program that empowers women through small, rural, community-based autonomous savings and lending groups. Saving for Change is now reaching 300,000 women, in almost half of the 10,000 villages in Mali. We went to six different remote villages and had the opportunity to see the savings groups conduct their meetings, and to talk with individual members about their experiences.
Despite President Obama’s assertion last week in his speech during the Millennium Development Goals Summit that the delivery of medicines to Mali is improving the health systems there, the UNDP statistics on Mali continue to be humbling. The overall illiteracy rate is 73.8 percent, with women faring much worse, and the average life expectancy is 48.1 years.
Yet, here we were witnessing change in difficult circumstances. The savings groups are comprised of about twenty women, and they sit around a circle conducting their business orally, often repeating the amount that each woman contributes, since no written records exist.
In the village of Samako, in the Koulikoro area, Fatumata Dumbiya told me that before Saving for Change, if her child got malaria, she could go around the whole village and not be able to find a single dollar, but now she has a safety net, and this gives her a sense of immense calm. Over and over again, I heard stories of women starting small businesses, having enough money to pay school fees for their children, and of improved relations in the family due to a small monetary cushion. It was apparent that Saving for Change had not only created access to capital, but it had also increased the women’s self-esteem. In fact, quieter women who didn’t speak up before were now being fined, albeit a token amount, for talking too much in the groups.
I came away from Mali inspired by the women, their entrepreneurial spirit, and the solidarity that emerged from the groups. I was also equally struck by Oxfam’s partners in our technical unit, the animators (as they are called) who go from village to village training the women to form the groups. The passion and dedication that they brought to the cause was palpable. Eventually, Saving for Change is designed in such a way that the groups are self-sufficient, and the animators can bow out, truly fulfilling the promise of empowerment.